What is Dharma?
'Dharma' is an ancient, Indian word based on the root 'Dhr' - 'that which holds (together)'. It is translated as 'duty' or 'station in life', or simply as 'law'. In the Buddhist faith, the Buddhist 'goes for refuge' in the Buddha (the teacher) the Dharma (the teaching), and the Sangha (the association of the wise).
People often translate 'Dharma' as 'religion' but really the 'dharma' and 'religion' mean quite different things. Especially at this time, equating 'dharma' with 'religion' is very misleading. There is actually no word in English which directly translates Dharma, so it might help to start by defining 'religion'.
Definitions of Religion
Religion is generally understood to have two possible roots: the latin 'Religio' which is simply an attitude of awe and respect towards the Gods.
Another meaning is thought to be from 're-ligare' which means to bind or unite. This usage is nearer in meaning to the Hindu term 'yoga' meaning 'to yoke (e.g. a harness to a horse)' or 'to join'. The first meaning is often associated with 'conventional religious belief', the second with the inner or more esoteric meaning of the word.
Regardless of the definition chosen, religion in the West is understood in general terms to have the following characteristics:
- It is conclusive, that is to say it is the one and only true religion;
- It is exclusionary, that is to say, those who don't follow it are excluded from salvation and
- It is separative, that is to say, in order to belong to it one must not belong to another.
Organised religion demands adherence of the followers to the Book and the Prophet. Anything outside the boundaries of a faith is considered irreligious, if not downright sinful. It is believed that salvation lies only through the body of the Prophet or His words. History of mankind is often a gory testament of destruction wrought by the zealots in pursuit of faith. It is a testament of dividing people and converting them, of persecution, intolerance and subjugation, or of burning at the stakes: of the contest between the ecclesiastical and the temporal, the doctrine of two swords and of intrigues. Religion has been one of the most potent divisive forces in all history.
This is contrasted with the idea of dharma:
The worldview of the dharmic traditions is that while scriptures can be very helpful, Truth cannot be found by scripture alone but by a path of experiential realization and Self-discovery - and in that sense religion is not conclusive. It is also not separative and exclusive in the sense of dividing the world into believers and non-believers. The dharmic worldview is that there are many tribes throughout the world, and many teachers and teachings. Each tribe has good and bad people in a continuum; people that have a greater degree of access to truth and "goodness" are worthy of respect; and others less so. Since there is a continuum of "goodness" among individuals of each tribe, the need for converting other tribes to a particular conception of God as a religious imperative is not really there. A teacher can share his or her understanding of the truth; and means and ways for others to access this; but there is no underlying belief that only one such way exists.
The Dharma of the Buddha
The characteristics of Dharma (dhamma in the Pali language of the Theravada tradition) display many such characteristics. The six qualities of the Buddha Dhamma, with their Pali titles, are:
- The Dhamma is not a speculative philosophy, but is the Universal Law found through enlightenment and is preached precisely. Therefore it is excellent in the beginning, excellent in the middle and excellent in the end
The Dhamma can be tested by practice and therefore he who follows it will see the result by himself through his own experience.
: The Dhamma is able to bestow timeless and immediate results here and now, for which there is no need to wait until the future or next existence.
- "which you can come and see" -- from the phrase ehi, paśya "come, see!". The Dhamma welcomes all to put it to the test and come see for themselves.
- "leading one close to" - The Dhamma is capable of being entered upon and therefore it is worthy to be followed as a part of one's life.
"To be personally known by the wise". The Dhamma can be perfectly realized only by the noble disciples who have matured and enlightened enough in supreme wisdom.
Is Buddhism a religion?
In some ways, yes, but in other ways, no.
Unlike religions in the Western sense, Buddhism discourages reliance on rites and rituals, and seeking salvation through belief alone. It holds people responsible for their own lives and teaches the 'cause of suffering and the ending of suffering'. However Buddhism is not necessarily anti-religious. Buddhist scholar and monk Nyanoponika Thera wrote:
the Buddha's teaching is not a nihilism that gives suffering humanity no better hope than a final cold nothingness. On the contrary, it is a teaching of salvation (niyyanika-dhamma) or deliverance (vimutti) which attributes to man the faculty to realize by his own efforts the highest goal, Nibbana, the ultimate cessation of suffering and the final eradication of greed, hatred and delusion. Nibbana is far from being the blank zero of annihilation; yet it also cannot be identified with any form of God-idea, as it is neither the origin nor the immanent ground or essence of the world.
Buddhism is not an enemy of religion as atheism is.... Buddhism, indeed, is the enemy of none. A Buddhist will recognize and appreciate whatever ethical, spiritual and cultural values have been created by God-belief in its long and checkered history.
However it is true that, in its long history, Buddhism has become an institutional faith in many cultures, represented by hereditary priests in long-established temples. In these settings, it is very similar to religions around the world. However apart from its association with the martial and military classes in Japanese society, Buddhism has had a generally peaceful history, and has never sought to impose its creeds on anyone unwilling to be instructed in them.
But to conclude, the idea of Dharma generally, and the form it has taken in the Buddhist teaching, is quite different in many important respects from what the West understands as 'religion', based as it is on principles and practice which can be understood and applied beneficially in daily life.
(1) ??? Veda: Dharma and Religion
(3) Buddhism and the God-idea